Loyal readers will remember that I managed to read a chapter or two of Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House before it was whisked away from my by the vagaries of the library system and I was left with the disappointment that was Necroville.
Despite my overall poor opinion of Necroville, the two chapters of The Dervish House I had read had made me eager for more. Now that I’ve finished it I can say that I was right to be eager; it is a beautifully paced novel full of interesting and engaging characters, not least of which is the city of Istanbul itself.
The lives of six Istanbul residents intersect and run parallel by turns over the course of five days a couple of decades hence, when Turkey is an EU memberstate and nanotechnology is commonplace. The story begins with a suicide bomber disrupting public transport, and ends with an ambitious terrorist plot being foiled. This is no Jack Bauer style thriller, though — inbetween those two events we encounter a delicious mix of religion, law, mysticism, nanotech, art, history, football, culture, and economics. It is as confident and learned as the work of Neal Stephenson, and there is a delight in, and intensity of, language that is reminiscent of China Mieville. Neither of these writers, though, have displayed the cultural savvy and sensitivity that McDonald displays here. I look forward to reading his River of Gods and Brasyl (set in India and Brazil respectively).
McDonald does a much better job of tying his threads together here than he did in Necroville. One common factor is the eponymous dervish house (or tekke), within or beside which all of the characters live or work. One character is a young boy kept from the world though illness, who interacts with the outside via his nanobot-swarm pet that is sometimes rat, sometimes snake, sometimes monkey, and sometimes bird. Another is his grandfather-aged friend – a reclusive Greek and economic scholar. It is these two who unravel the puzzle that emerges following the opening suicide bombing. A third is a local good-for-nought who sees djinni after being on the tram on which the bombing takes place. Another two are husband and wife. He is a stock trader trying to make it rich with a convoluted gas selling scam; she is an art and antiquities dealer on the search for a mellified man. Lastly, there is a young woman hired by a start-up nanotech business to market its wares. All of these stories unfold beautifully in the warm glow of a Turkish summer and the conclusion is elegant and satisfying in the extreme.
There is also some delightful humour in there. I suspect that those who have seen Withnail & I will be particular pleased to encounter this: “‘Balls,’ Adnan says, snatching up the plastic container. ‘I’ll take your Islamic nano and run a fucking mile.'” I’m just sad that he couldn’t fit: “We want the finest nano available to humanity. We want it here and we want it now” in there somewhere…